Former Merced County area mayor, ex-school board member pleads guilty in bribery case

Jones’ attorney addresses arrest

Tommy Jones, Los Banos school board member and former mayor, turned himself in on Wednesday. His attorney, Kevin Little, said outside the Merced County Sheriff's Office on Wednesday that Jones is suspected of bribery and likely will appear in cour
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Tommy Jones, Los Banos school board member and former mayor, turned himself in on Wednesday. His attorney, Kevin Little, said outside the Merced County Sheriff's Office on Wednesday that Jones is suspected of bribery and likely will appear in cour

Tommy Jones, a former Los Banos Unified School District board member and city mayor, has pleaded guilty in connection with the alleged bribing of a fellow ex-school board member for his vote on a school contract.

Jones on Friday pleaded guilty to a single misdemeanor count of “aiding and abetting school board member in becoming financially interested in a contract” in an agreement that was filed under seal by visiting Santa Clara Judge Leslie Nichols, according to court records.

Jones and Merced-area contractor Gregory Opinski were accused of bribing school board member Dominic Falasco with $12,000 for Falasco’s swing vote on three school board items, including hiring Opinski’s firm as the construction manager for a Mercey Springs Elementary expansion project, according to investigation reports.

Opinski has pleaded not guilty, according to court records.

Jones didn’t immediately return messages asking for comment. Neither did Opinski’s attorney, Jeffrey Hammerschmidt.

Jones’ attorney, Kevin Little of Fresno, declined to comment because the plea agreement was under seal.

Merced County District Attorney Kimberly Lewis said the plea agreement was sealed because her office was concerned that some of the facts and circumstances within the negotiated plea, if released to the public, may have affected prosecutors’ ability to secure a fair trial and impartial jury for the case against Opinski.

“One thing that we don’t want to do is be required to request a change of venue,” Lewis said, declining to comment on the specific facts and circumstances because they were under seal.

Jones is expected to be sentenced March 4 and faces a maximum of one year in county jail, according to court records.

Bribery case

Jones initially pleaded not guilty to two felony counts of bribing legislators, according to court records.

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Ex-Los Banos school trustee Tommy Jones (left) and Merced area contractor Greg Opinski wait for their scheduled arraignment hearing on charges of bribing a public official Friday, Jan. 6, 2017, at the Merced Superior Court. Vikaas Shanker Los Banos Enterprise

Investigation reports detail an alleged bribery scheme that involved Jones, Opinski and Falasco.

Falasco told then-District Attorney Larry Morse II that Jones may have attempted to bribe Falasco during a visit to Falasco’s home on Sept. 23, 2015, according to the reports.

Falasco said Jones, in an unannounced visit, set a magazine down and left after telling Falasco to read it.

Falasco told Morse he picked the magazine up and an envelope with $1,500 in cash slipped out, according to the reports. Jones later reportedly told Falasco the cash was “spending money” from Opinski for a school board conference.

Falasco then was fitted with secret devices by the District Attorney’s Office and recorded several meetings between him, Jones and Opinski.

Jones and Opinski during the meetings reportedly made several comments about paying Falasco for his vote to remove former Superintendent Steve Tietjen, replace the district’s lawyers and award the Mercey Springs contract to Opinski.

On April 16, 2016, after Falasco was arrested on suspicion of possessing methamphetamine, Opinski reportedly asked Falasco how he could help the embattled school board member, the reports state. Days later, Falasco allegedly told Jones he wanted $20,000 for his swing vote on the three issues.

On April 23, 2016, Jones met Falasco and told him Opinski reduced the offer to $12,000, according to reports. Two days later, Jones reportedly gave Falasco $3,000 as a down payment. And the rest of the money was paid after a May 12 school board meeting, after Falasco’s vote gave the Mercey Springs contract to Opinski.

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Los Banos Unified School District trustee Tommy Jones leaves Merced County Jail Wednesday, Aug. 31, 2016, shortly after surrendering himself to authorities. He was being sought on bribery allegations. Thaddeus Miller tmiller@mercedsunstar.com

Jones was arrested Aug. 31, 2016, on suspicion of bribery. Later that day, the school district board voted to cancel Opinski’s contract.

The school board’s president, Anthony Parreira, said he’s glad Jones’ case is done.

“It’s nice that this is over,” he said. “We can move on. We were just lucky that we were able to know something was happening before there was any financial hit to the district.”

When asked about the plea agreement, including Jones pleading to a misdemeanor instead of a felony, Parreira said, “It does surprise you, but it doesn’t,” adding he couldn’t comment further without knowing all the details of the agreement.

Key witness troubles

Jones and Opinski’s lawyers have claimed Falasco, who was at the center of the case, was not a credible witness following a series of indiscretions.

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Los Banos Unified School District Trustee Dominic Falasco speaks at a LBUSD board meeting Thursday, Oct. 13, 2016, in Los Banos City Hall. Vikaas Shanker vshanker@losbanosenterprise.com

Most recently, Merced County Judge Jeanne Schechter ruled that Falasco’s client in a 2014 case, Antonio Sotelo, a legal immigrant and combat veteran, was not properly informed that pleading to domestic violence charges would result in mandatory deportation.

Sotelo claimed Falasco gave him misleading advice about the immigration consequences of his plea. He also claimed Falasco was “high” while representing him. Falasco denied both claims.

Last year, Falasco was accused by attorneys of sleeping in court during a double-homicide trial. A week later, he said he penned a fake letter to the State Bar claiming he was unfit to represent clients in order to manipulate his estranged wife to get back together with him.

In addition to pleading guilty to an April 2016 drug arrest, Falasco faces a civil lawsuit claiming he solicited sex from a prospective client’s girlfriend in exchange for representation. Falasco also was suspended by the State Bar for failing to pay child support.

When asked about how Falasco’s issues would affect the bribery case, Lewis said she wouldn’t comment on the evidence.

Vikaas Shanker is an award-winning reporter covering education, crime and courts for the Merced Sun-Star and Los Banos Enterprise. After growing up in Naperville, Illinois and graduating from the University of Kansas, he reported in several Chicago suburbs before moving to Merced County in 2016.